As I packed my car to leave, he tore boxes from my hands and carried them back into the apartment, begging me to stay, even though he had kicked me out. I relented, went inside, wept cross-legged on the floor and said, “One more night and we can talk things out, see what happens.”
A minute later, he changed his mind. “Actually, I think you should go.”
For four years I had done everything he wanted, so I left. I drove through snow-choked Colorado, thinking of what my mother had said after the first time we’d gotten back together: I’m not sure if he loves you or hates you.
It was both. There was the version of our relationship where we had slow-danced at house parties, raced bikes down hills, spread out blankets in the woods and laid down naked together.
And then there was the version of our relationship where he gripped my hand so hard it felt like he was crushing it, slapped me across the face and said just kidding. He made me recite the lies I was going to tell my friends like lines in a play.
When he broke up with me for the final time, I had a hundred dollars and nowhere to go. I took a job at a hotel in Death Valley National Park because it offered housing. It sounded like a place where no one would want to live, so I figured they’d be desperate enough to take me.
On the first day of the 900-mile drive, bruised clouds blanketed Interstate 70 with snow. I checked into a motel in Grand Junction and turned on my computer, hoping to see a message from him asking me to come back. There was nothing. I had left our apartment four hours ago, and he’d already unfriended me on Facebook.
I arrived heartsick in California and fell in love with Death Valley. The guide I leafed through at a grimy desert gas station described it as a “land of extremes,” containing the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and holding the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded on earth.
As I crested a hill that dropped down into the valley, the landscape appeared otherworldly. It seemed impossible that the pain I carried with me could live in this place. It was a land of sunlight and creosote, salt flats and mountains.
It was also a land of men.
“The boys are going to like you here,” the HR assistant said, dropping me off at the employee dorm.
On my first day, I walked down a dirt road and heard howling. It wasn’t coyotes; it was a group of men, fresh off work and several drinks deep.
“Welcome to Death Valley, girl.” One of them cupped his hands to his mouth. “We hunt in packs.”
Critical things my ex-boyfriend had said ― that I needed to lose weight, that my breasts were too small, that I was a 9 out of 10 which meant room for improvement ― were etched in my mind. When men studied me from the stairs of the dorm or pressed cool beers into my hands, I felt flattered.
I had assumed that national parks employees were into organic living. Turns out that unlike actual rangers, people who work in hotels in the parks (affectionately referred to as “parkies”), are a wild bunch who trip on acid in the mountains, run naked in the desert, and take seasonal gigs so they can rove in perpetuity.
For some, a season in the national parks is a diversion ― a thing you do in between college and the real world ― but for others, the diversion never has to end. Parkies are young and old. Couples and loners. Long-distance hikers and lifetime alcoholics. Rich kids who are slumming it and homeless adults who have nowhere else to go. Stay a parkie long enough and the lifestyle strips you of who you were before.
I took to hanging around the dusty trailer park in cowboy boots and a bikini, smoking cigarettes and waiting for the next handsome face to ruin my life.
Two possibilities identified themselves immediately. I met the first one, a bellman at the hotel, the moment I stepped out of my car on my first day. He offered to help me unpack.
We talked for a while and he invited me to have dinner later. But when he knocked, I pretended I wasn’t there. He seemed kind ― genuinely kind ― and I didn’t know how to be treated that way.
So I went with option number two, a line cook from the hotel restaurant. Blue eyes, tattoos, a Southern accent. He took me to the dunes at night in a convertible. Later in my bed, when I took off my shirt, sand rained down. Some days he would text me you look gorgeous and then show up at my room, lift me up onto the sink and go down on me. Other days, he would ignore me.
Once, he told me, “All pretty girls are evil.”
It sounded like something my ex-boyfriend might say. A cryptic phrase that made me wonder just who he wanted me to be.
I worked split shifts at the restaurant: walking to breakfast as the pink alpenglow warmed the Panamint Range, clocking out to spend a few hours running around the pale white playa with new friends before going back to work dinner. At night, we trekked into the desert and danced beneath the starlight while kit foxes skittered in and out of canyons.
I believed that I was healed. All of that pain, melted by gold California sun. The bellman became my best friend. We wandered through ghost towns, drove into the mountains looking for snow, talked over burgers at middle-of-nowhere Nevada cafes until it seemed like we had always been in each other’s lives.
“You know he’s in love with you, right?” a friend at the trailer park asked me.
But I was fixated on the line cook, whose attention alternated between adoration and indifference. One night, he’d be at my door, the next I’d let him know it was unlocked and he’d never appear. Sometimes he’d say something specific and hurtful, like, “I hate the way you purse your lips.”
“I think we should define what we’re doing,” I said naked in his bed one afternoon, with the ferocity of someone who has transferred the commitment from a long-term relationship onto a near stranger. Each time I asked for exclusivity, he declined.
On Valentine’s Day, he avoided me. I drank a steady stream of margaritas at the saloon, teetered home and collapsed, remembering times when my ex-boyfriend had seemed so romantic that it was impossible to fathom the cruelty he was also capable of. He’d once driven through a snowstorm to tell me he was in love with me. I curled up in my bed, still wearing my heels.
A front desk girl stopped by. “I hate to tell you this,” she said. “But after you and that line cook slept together for the first time, he told everyone he wasn’t really into you.”
At the next party, I took six shots of whiskey and grabbed the arm of the first man who met my eyes. He was compact and sexy in a You don’t want to know where I’ve been kind of way, and so what if he was friends with the line cook? I was drunk and lonely and not good enough to be anyone’s girlfriend. I took him back to my room.
There’s a saying in Death Valley. If you start a rumor at the trailer park, people at the dorms will hear about it before you drive up there. Which is to say, everyone found out.
At another party at a different location ― this time the ruins of a townsite where mining equipment lay rusting ― a waitress from the cafe slung her arm around me.
“You’re the queen of Death Valley.” She leaned in, her breath hot and foul. “But you know everyone thinks you’re a little slut, right?”
A few days later, at the saloon, a bartender quipped, “There she is, the village bicycle.”
My strange, sudden desert family turned on me. I was a tramp, a joke. A man I’d never spoken to texted me Do you want to come to my trailer and have sex?
And then the ex-boyfriend messaged me. He referenced a few inside jokes, torturing me with the shorthand that couples remember even after it ends. I could tell he didn’t miss me; he just wanted to keep tabs on me. But if he had asked me to come back to him in that moment, I would have left everything I owned behind in the desert for a chance to be hurt by him again.
I felt both unworthy of love and desperate for it, which is a toxic blend of emotions, especially when combined with vodka.
One night after too many drinks, I found the bellman in the hallway of the employee dorm.
“Stay over tonight,” I said, putting my arms around his neck.
He gently untangled himself from me.
“I want to,” he said. “But no. You need to learn how to sleep alone.”
It was a seasonal job. The season ended. I took a five-month gig at a hotel in Yellowstone National Park. I knew I would go somewhere else after that. Moving from park to park allowed me to love people fast and hard, hurt them or be hurt by them and then take off for somewhere new where I’d repeat the cycle, skipping the part where you reflect.
On my last day in Death Valley, the bellman and I drove to an opera house built by a ballerina who performed a one-woman show there ― true story ― and though we were soon going our separate ways, we didn’t make plans to see each other again. He knew how much I wanted to love him, but I couldn’t. Not yet.
“The timing wasn’t right,” he said.
“If we ever end up in the same place,” I said. “Maybe it will be.”
I thought moving to the wilderness would allow me to escape something that had nearly shattered me. For a while, the intense relationships I had with people who loved me for a season and then evaporated at the end convinced me I was right. But my pain followed me from Colorado to California, Wyoming, Montana ― everywhere, because that’s what wounds do. They stay with you until you look down and they’re gone.
After a few seasons, I showed up for a job in Glacier National Park, and there was the bellman.
Everything comes full circle, but that’s not what this is about. It’s not about the moment you meet someone or the moment they destroy you or decide to love you forever. It’s about what happens in between, and how it breaks you, heals you, prepares you.
When I arrived in Glacier, I was finally ready. He had been there all along, since that day when he stood on the wrought-iron steps in the desert; it had just taken me a few national parks to get to him.
I went down to the lake, took out a pen and paper and wrote the words I’m going to marry him. And last year, on a clear November day in Death Valley, I did. We said our vows just steps from the exact spot where I’d climbed out of my car years ago, comforted by the knowledge that I could always get back in and drive away.
For years, I drove away from myself, always thinking the next park would be better, whispering to myself: This is where I will be happy, this is where I will be happy, this is where I will be happy. Was it optimism? Was it a lie? Whatever it was, I believed in it, until somewhere along the way, I didn’t need to anymore.
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